You Are One of Them
To know that the title of Elliott Holt’s novel You Are One of Them comes from the Elizabeth Bishop poem “In the Waiting Room” is to know something about the ending.
I read the novel because Elliott was a Kenyon student around the time my kids were born, and she came back to give a reading from You Are One of Them. I’ve been trying to get out more, you know, since I’m no longer tied to the school schedule or the fixing supper schedule or even much of an animal care schedule–we get the cats in before dark, but there’s still a hole in my afternoon where taking care of Snowbell was for the last decade.
In the Kenyon bookstore, the day before the reading, I got to page 36 before I knew that I would buy the copy of You Are One of Them that I’d picked up. That’s where I began to identify with the main character of the novel, a girl named Sarah who
“came of age during the Cold War. When I was a kid, the United States and the Soviet Union were always keeping score. Each defector claimed by the other side was a point. If your country is so great, why did so-and-so leave?
I was one and a half when Mikhail Baryshnikov defected while on tour with the Bolshoi Ballet in Canada. And seven in 1979, when another Soviet dancer, Alexander Godunov, slipped away while the Bolshoi was in New York….KGB officer Vitaly Yurchenko defected in August of 1985…and then escaped from his CIA handler at Au Pied de Cochon in Georgetown and marched up the street to the Russian embassy to redefect.”
Sarah tells her story of going to Au Pied de Cochon, and, probably like anyone who frequented Georgetown in the 1980’s, I thought of the times we walked past there, sometimes towards the more interesting ethnic restaurants up the street.
So I took the book home and read about how Sarah and her best friend Jenny write letters to Yuri Andropov, and then he writes back to Jenny and invites her to come and bring her family to visit “our peaceful country.” Her family does go, for “six days in Moscow, six days in Leningrad, and three days at Artek, the Pioneer camp on the Crimea.” After the trip, Jenny gets famous as a “ten-year-old peace ambassador,” and then “an effective Soviet propaganda tool.”
After Jenny gets famous, the girls grow apart; there are hints that Jenny is not what she seems. At one point, she lets Sarah wander around in the woods for two hours thinking they’re playing hide and seek, and when Sarah comes back upset, only to find Jenny already at home, Jenny says “Don’t be so dramatic” and Sarah thinks “I was too sensitive.” Eventually, Sarah hears that Jenny and her family have been killed in a plane crash. After years of wondering about what their friendship meant, Sarah gets a mysterious note from a girl Jenny met in the U.S.S.R., Svetlana, and it spurs Sarah to travel to post-Soviet Russia to find out what happened to Jenny. This is the main adventure of the novel. The reader is continually trying to discover whether, as people say of Sarah, she is “too forgiving” or whether, as Sarah says of herself, she is really “not…forgiving enough….It does no good to see everything as a struggle between opposing factions. Few things are that simple.” The story of what happened to Jenny does not turn out to be a story of “us” and “them.”
Revelations about Jenny’s life unfold very slowly. Svetlana introduces Sarah to the KGB museum, which “seemed designed to prove that the KGB had consistently outsmarted the CIA.” Sarah remembers that she and Jenny experimented with invisible ink, and then she remembers a gold signet ring that Jenny’s father used to wear when she sees one that Svetlana tells her “is concealment ring…For the microdots….Very small photographs….Entire documents reduced to size of…punctuation marks.” Finally Svetlana asks Sarah what message she thinks was hidden in invisible ink in Jenny’s letter to Andropov, and the penny drops:
“She was ten years old,” I said. “She wasn’t a spy.”
“Nyet,” said Sveta. “But her father was.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said, “He was a consultant. And then I realized how absurd I sounded. All spies, I knew, had covers. Some posed as diplomats—half the employees of the American embassy in Moscow were CIA operatives—others as businessmen. Washington was lousy with consultants—it was a word tossed around so often that I never thought to ask what sort of consulting was going on.”
The pictures of Russia are part of the pleasure of reading the novel, as the mystery continues to unfold, bit by tiny, frozen bit. A Moscow winter setting in sounds very much like a Gambier winter, from this description:
“Even before the snow fell, the color drained out of the sky. Everything was desaturated and gray. The horizon line vanished into the monotone. I could see how weather might calcify a person, how enough days without sun could make you hard. How your humor might get bleaker, how cynicism might take root. The air was glassy and sharp, and being outside made me feel ready to break.”
Sarah, who came to Russia believing that “you are a hero to the country you defect to, a traitor to the one you defect from,” learns a bit of subtlety as she gets closer to finding Jenny. What she finds finally makes her turn away–she tells everyone in Russia she is staying in the country and taking a job, while she is actually taking the first airplane home.
I asked Elliott about the ending, saying I thought I liked it, but I wasn’t sure, since I’d just finished reading the novel the night before. I knew I liked Sarah’s long-delayed sense of self-preservation, and her new subtlety, but I wasn’t sure I liked the cruelty of her turning away and the deception of her departure. Elliott’s answer was that Sarah has learned how to be “the protagonist of her own story,” which is almost a title drop, as Sarah has learned what the speaker of “In the Waiting Room” learns, which is “you are an I…you are one of them,” with the emphasis on the word “one.”
I’m still not sure I like the ending, any more than I am sure I like the silence and solitude of what comes after twenty years of raising children and rabbit and fish and guinea pigs and birds and hermit crabs. But I do like the suggestion that something stranger could still happen. Perhaps every turning away is a cruelty, but mostly to the memory of what made a person turn toward someone else–the memory is a part of the person, so she’s the one who gets to decide.